Up for Debate: The Meaning of Fair Play

August 29th, 2008 by Kathy McManus

Is fairness and sportsmanship more important than winning?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

According to the ultimate sports aphorism, It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.

But should sportsmanship be more important than winning, even at the Olympics?

Yes, says the International Fair Play Committee, a little-known organization dedicated to rewarding altruistic athletes who believe that fairness is “more important than winning at all costs.”

As an affiliate of the International Olympic Committee, Fair Play hands out awards each year to self-sacrificing athletes, in addition to athletically responsible kids and coaches. Any organization or individual can nominate someone for a prize.

But Fair Play has a problem. They get very few nominations. And though the Olympic Committee made a special public plea for more, recommendations haven’t exactly been pole-vaulting in, even during the Olympic Games.

Fair Play’s president thinks there’s a reason why fairness can’t compete. “Victory is a huge motivation,” he explained. “A great number of people make money off athletes. Sports federations, commercial sponsors—everyone pressures them to get to the top. Athletes live under threat.”

Olympic-sized questions of poor sportsmanship aren’t difficult to find.

• The angry Swedish wrestler who disdained and discarded his bronze medal on the floor during the awards ceremony was disqualified for “violating the spirit of fair play at the Games.”

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt was criticized by the president of the Olympic Committee for showing a lack of respect to his competitors with his chest-thumping, show-boating gold medal wins.

• When U.S. tennis player James Blake lost to Chile’s Fernando Gonzalez after a match that included a questionable call, Blake accused his opponent of being flat-out dishonorable. “Maybe I shouldn’t expect people to hold themselves to high standards [of] sportsmanship,” he said. “Maybe I did expect a little more out of the Olympics.”

But behind the disappointing headlines, acts of responsible sportsmanship have also played out, albeit more quietly. Dara Torres failed to get the gold, but she didn’t fail to help a Swedish competitor whose swimsuit tore just before her competition. Wildly waiving her arms to get the officials’ attention, Torres delayed the start of the race so her opponent could have a fair chance.

And when aquatic superhero Michael Phelps earned his seventh gold medal by a breathtaking hundredth of a second over second-place Serb swimmer Milorad Cavic, the win was immediately protested by Serbia. But in an unusual gesture of sportsmanship, silver medalist Cavic said, “If it was up to me right now, I would just stop the protest. “I’m not angry. I’m stoked. I’m happy. You’ve got to understand I came into this competition with a goal to win a bronze medal.”

Tell us what you think: Do Olympic athletes have a responsibility beyond winning or doing their best for their country? Should the priority be sportsmanship first, winning second? Which Olympic athletes do you think should be awarded for upholding the standards of fair play?